It's been 11 years since I first read Severus Snape's death scene in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, but after all that time, I am still conflicted over my feelings about the Half-Blood Prince. To many fans, he is the ultimate hero of the series redeemed by love and self-sacrifice; to others, he's a manipulative villain harboring an unhealthy obsession with a woman who rejected him. To me, and to other Potterheads like BuzzFeed's Keely Flaherty who recently rediscovered a small scene from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2 that firmly reinforces the idea that Snape has many, many layers, he's a complex character that falls somewhere in between. But has the Harry Potter fandom spent too much time trying to decode and justify the actions of Severus Snape? It's been over a decade since this controversial antihero's fictional death, and I think it's time to let the defense rest.
There is no question that Severus Snape, Hogwarts' resentful Potions master and eventual Headmaster, lived a sad and ultimately heartbreaking life. He grew up poor and was frequently made fun of for his ill-fitting clothes and peculiar appearance. His witch mother and Muggle father fought constantly and often neglected and even possibly abused their lonely son. When he was finally able to escape his depressing home life and attend Hogwarts, Snape didn't find the happiness and acceptance he had hoped for at school. Instead, he spent seven years as a loner and a misfit, the target of intense bullying from his peers. To top things off, his best friend since childhood and unrequited love, Lily Evans, married his sworn rival, James Potter.
Snape's childhood was one filled with violence and neglect, and his formative years at school were spent oscillating between moments of loneliness and episodes of bullying. All this is to say, Snape didn't have it easy, but can his troubled past excuse his deadly choices as an adult? Absolutely not. Harry Potter suffered similarly, if not more, in his youth and yet he chose to join the side of good instead of lean into the evil around him. When Snape joined the Death Eaters, a violent hate group whose goal it was to rid the world of muggles by any means necessary, he also made a choice. He knowingly, happily, engaged in violent acts in the name of magical purity, and I'm not sure anything short of losing his true love could have changed his mind.
Snape didn't turn his back on the evil because of some moral awakening. It wasn't until the Death Eaters he had voluntarily and loyally served threatened the life of his true love, Lily, that he betrayed them, and we all know how the story goes from there: Snape turns on Voldemort in an attempt to save the Potters. When it fails, he spends the rest of his life as a double agent working on behalf of Albus Dumbledore and the Order of the Phoenix.
For decades, Snape has been widely regarded by readers as one of J.K. Rowling's most complex creations, and as a result, also one of her most polarizing. Yes, Snape fought on the side of good, but for utterly selfish reasons: his love and obsession with Lily. He ultimately betrayed Voldemort and risked his life working for the Order of the Phoenix, but before he switched sides, Snape was entranced by the dark arts and willingly engaged in a movement to create a master race of wizard purebloods. Sure, he helped save Harry Potter in the end, and yes, he did a lot of good along the way, but does that somehow erase all of the bad things he is so clearly guilty of? Realistically, it can't possibly, but that doesn't stop #TeamSnape fans from trying to vindicate their tragic hero.
It's impossible to ignore all of the blood on Snape's hands, and yet, fans of the series are constantly on the lookout for new ways to wash them clean. In The Sorcerer's Stone, readers will point to Snape's decision to protect Harry from Professor Quirrell/Voldemort as evidence that he was really a good guy. After all, he couldn't stand the boy who looked exactly like James, so why wouldn't Snape just let Harry fall of him broom to an untimely, but ultimately guilt-free, death? In The Prisoner of Azkaban, he shielded Harry, Ron, and Hermione from a werewolf attack. Why wouldn't he just let his least favorite students get bitten? In The Deathly Hallows, some fans will even argue that Snape's choice to be Hogwarts Headmaster is one motivated by goodness: the cold-hearted professor wanted to be there to protect the students, or so #TeamSnape supports will say.
Most recently, BuzzFeed called attention to a short but revealing scene from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2 that many fans have used as further proof that Snape was ultimately a good guy just trying to do the right thing.
During the scene in question, Snape and Professor McGonagall are engaged in a short but intense battle inside Hogwarts. With the students looking on, McGonagall blasts Snape with a spell that he masterfully blocks. If you look closely though, the Half-Blood Prince did more than dodge the spell himself: it appears he redirects it so it hits the Death Eaters behind him, Alecto and Amycus Carrow.
In this small moment, it appears Snape took direct action to deliberately hurt members of Voldemort's army and help the Order of the Phoenix, in front of an entire hall of students no less. Was it a dueling accident, or is it proof that his loyalty has always been with Dumbledore and the side of good? I'm not so sure it's either.
Like everything else Snape does, this tiny act of heroism is complicated and touched by darkness. In redirecting McGonagall's spell, he saves himself and seriously injures the two Death Eaters behind him, and that choice is emblematic of who he is as a character. Would he have done the same — purposefully hurt a Death Eater and risk being outed as a good guy — if his own body wasn't in harm's way, if it didn't serve him in the end? The truth is, Snape isn't a man who is concerned with good or evil, right or wrong. He is a man consumed by loss and heartbreak over losing Lily, one that motivates everything he does, good and bad, and that's not OK.
What Snape does in this moment, and what he does over the course of all seven books and eight movies, is heroic in its results, but not in its intentions. His choice to serve Dumbledore, his choice to protect Harry, and even his choice to redirect McGonagall's spell at Alecto and Amycus Carrow is motivated by his own needs, wants, fears, and desires, not by some greater sense of good. Ultimately, Snape is driven by his need to redeem himself for being unable to save Lily, not by his sense of morality or desire to see good win out.
That is what makes Snape so problematic: what it looks like he does, and what he actually does, seem to be constantly operating on two different levels. J.K. Rowling said it best when she described Snape as "all grey" in a tweet in 2015. "You can't make him a saint: he was vindictive & bullying," the character's creator admitted. "You can't make him a devil: he died to save the wizarding world."
There is no arguing that Severus Snape is a complicated figure. In fact, that is what makes him so fascinating: his complex layers make him one of the most intriguing parts of the Harry Potter world, and one of the most interesting characters to debate about. But it has been two decades since we first met the bitter and sarcastic Potions Master, and over ten years since his death, and fans are still searching new ways to defend Snape's choices and new evidence to prove he deserves to be on a pedestal next to Harry Potter and the other heroes from the series. It's high time we stop trying to shave off his rough edges in order to make him fit the mold of the perfect savior. We can't reshape him into anything other than what Rowling has written him to be: a complex character who did truly awful things as often as he did truly good things.
So what can we do with Snape? That question is one every reader has to answer on their own. As for this Potterhead, I haven't decided if Snape is ultimately a hero or a villain, and I don't think I have to. Like Rowling said, "Snape deserves both admiration and disapprobation, like most of us." In the end, he wasn't a perfect, so lets finally stop trying to make Snape into someone who he wasn't — a selfless hero — and let's start treating him like the character her truly was: flawed and complicated man who doesn't need or deserve any defending.